Travel by Wire!
First published in Amateur Science Fiction Stories, December 1937 Collected in The Best of Arthur C. Clarke 1937-1955
Science fiction has always encouraged an enormous amount of amateur writing, and there have been literally thousands of duplicated (sometimes printed) magazines put out by enthusiastic "fans". [...] The first stories I ever completed appeared in some of these magazines [...]. If they do nothing else they may serve as a kind of absolute zero from which my later writing may be calibrated. `Travel by Wire!' was my first published story.
You people can have no idea of the troubles and trials we had to endure before we perfected the radio-transporter, not that it's quite perfect even yet. The greatest difficulty, as it had been in television thirty years before, was improving definition, and we spent nearly five years over that little problem. As you will have seen in the Science Museum, the first object we transmitted was a wooden cube, which was assembled all right, only instead of being one solid block it consisted of millions of little spheres. In fact, it looked just like a solid edition of one of the early television pictures, for instead of dealing with the object molecule by molecule or better still electron by electron, our scanners took little chunks at a time.
This didn't matter for some things, but if we wanted to transmit objects of art, let alone human beings, we would have to improve the process considerably. This we managed to do by using the delta-ray scanners all round our subject, above, below, right, left, in front and behind. It was a lovely game synchronising all six, I can tell you, but when it was done we found that the transmitted elements were ultra-microscopic in size, which was quite good enough for most purposes.
Then, when they weren't looking, we borrowed a guinea pig from the biology people on the 37th floor, and sent it through the apparatus. It came through in excellent condition, except for the fact it was dead. So we had to return it to its owner with a polite request for a post-mortem. They raved a bit at first, saying that the unfortunate creature had been inoculated with the only specimens of some germs they'd spent months rearing from the bottle. They were so annoyed, in fact, that they flatly refused our request.
Such insubordination on the part of mere biologists was of course deplorable, and we promptly generated a high-frequency field in their laboratory and gave them all fever for a few minutes. The post-mortem results came up in half an hour, the verdict being that the creature was in perfect condition but had died of shock, with a rider to the effect that if we wanted to try the experiment again we should blindfold our victims. We were also told that a combination lock had been fitted to the 37th floor to protect it from the depredations of kleptomaniacal mechanics who should be washing cars in a garage. We could not let this pass, so we immediately X-rayed their lock and to their complete consternation told them what the key-word was.
That is the best of being in our line, you can always do what you like with the other people. The chemists on the next floor were our only serious rivals, but we generally came out on top. Yes, I remember that time they slipped some vile organic stuff into our lab through a hole in the ceiling. We had to work in respirators for a month, but we had our revenge later. Every night after the staff had left, we used to send a dose of mild cosmics into the lab and curdled all their beautiful precipitates, until one evening old Professor Hudson stayed behind and we nearly finished him off. But to get back to my story
We obtained another guinea pig, chloroformed it, and sent it through the transmitter. To our delight, it revived. We immediately had it killed and stuffed for the benefit of posterity. You can see it in the museum with the rest of our apparatus.
But if we wanted to start a passenger service, this would never do it would be too much like an operation to suit most people. However, by cutting down the transmitting time to a ten-thousandth of a second, and thus reducing the shock, we managed to send another guinea pig in full possession of its faculties. This one was also stuffed.
The time had obviously come for one of us to try out the apparatus but as we realised what a loss it would be to humanity should anything go wrong, we found a suitable victim in the person of Professor Kingston, who teaches Greek or something foolish on the 197th floor. We lured him to the transmitter with a copy of Homer, switched on the field, and by the row from the receiver, we knew he'd arrived safely and in full possession of his faculties, such as they were. We would have liked to have had him stuffed as well, but it couldn't be arranged.
After that we went through in turns, found the experience quite painless, and decided to put the device on the market. I expect you can remember the excitement there was when we first demonstrated our little toy to the Press. Of course we had the dickens of a job convincing them that it wasn't a fake, and they didn't really believe it until they had been through the transporter themselves. We drew the line, though, at Lord Rosscastle, who would have blown the fuses even if we could have got him into the transmitter.
This demonstration gave us so much publicity that we had no trouble at all in forming a company. We bade a reluctant farewell to the Research Foundation, told the remaining scientists that perhaps one day we'd heap coals of fire on their heads by sending them a few millions, and started to design our first commercial senders and receivers.
The first service was inaugurated on May 10th, 1962. The ceremony took place in London, at the transmitting end, though at the Paris receiver there were enormous crowds watching to see the first passengers arrive, and probably hoping they wouldn't. Amid cheers from the assembled thousands, the Prime Minister pressed a button (which wasn't connected to anything), the chief engineer threw a switch (which was) and a large Union Jack faded from view and appeared again in Paris, rather to the annoyance of some patriotic Frenchmen.
After that, passengers began to stream through at a rate which left the Customs officials helpless. The service was a great and instantaneous success, as we only charged £2 per person. This we considered very moderate, for the electricity used cost quite one-hundredth of a penny.
Before long we had services to all the big dries of Europe, by cable that is, not radio. A wired system was safer, though it was dreadfully difficult to lay polyaxial cables, costing £500 a mile, under the Channel. Then, in conjunction with the Post Office, we began to develop internal services between the large towns. You may remember our slogans `Travel by Phone' and 'It's quicker by Wire' which were heard everywhere in 1963. Soon, practically everyone used our circuits and we were handling thousands of tons of freight per day.
Naturally, there were accidents, but we could point out that we had done what no Minister of Transport had ever done, reduced road fatalities to a mere ten thousand a year. We lost one client in six million, which was pretty good even to start with, though our record is even better now. Some of the mishaps that occurred were very peculiar indeed, and in fact there are quite a few cases which we haven't explained to the dependents yet, or to the insurance companies either.
One common complaint was earthing along the line. When that happened, our unfortunate passenger was just dissipated into nothingness. I suppose his or her molecules would be distributed more or less evenly over the entire earth. I remember one particularly gruesome accident when the apparatus failed in the middle of a transmission. You can guess the result ... Perhaps even worse was what happened when two lines got crossed and the currents were mixed.
Of course, not all accidents were as bad as these. Sometimes, owing to a high resistance in the circuit, a passenger would lose anything up to five stone in transit, which generally cost us about £1000 and enough free meals to restore the missing enbonpoint. Fortunately, we were soon able to make money out of this affair, for fat people came along to be reduced to manageable dimensions. We made a special apparatus which transmitted massive dowagers round resistance coils and reassembled them where they started, minus the cause of the trouble. 'So quick, my dear, and quite painless! I'm sure they could take off that 150 pounds you want to lose in no time! Or is it 200?'
We also had a good deal of trouble through interference and induction. You see, our apparatus picked up various electrical disturbances and superimposed them on the object under transmission. As a result many people came out looking like nothing on earth and very little on Mars or Venus. They could usually be straightened out by the plastic surgeons, but some of the products had to be seen to be believed.
Fortunately these difficulties have been largely overcome now that we use the micro-beams for our carrier, though now and then accidents still occur. I expect you remember that big lawsuit we had last year with Lita Cordova, the television star, who claimed £1,000,000 damages from us for alleged loss of beauty. She asserted that one of her eyes had moved during a transmission, but I couldn't see any difference myself and nor could the jury, who had enough opportunity. She had hysterics in the court when our Chief Electrician went into the box and said bluntly, to the alarm of both side's lawyers, that if anything really had gone wrong with the transmission, Miss Cordova wouldn't have been able to recognise herself had any cruel person handed her a mirror.
Lots of people ask us when we'll have a service to Venus or Mars. Doubtless that will come in time, but of course the difficulties are pretty considerable. There is so much sun static in space, not to mention the various reflecting layers everywhere. Even the micro-waves are stopped by the Appleton 'Q' layer at 100,000 km, you know. Until we can pierce that, Interplanetary shares are still safe.
Well, I see it's nearly 22, so I'd best be leaving. I have to be in New York by midnight. What's that? Oh no, I'm going by plane. I don't travel by wire! You see, I helped invent the thing!
Rockets for me! Good night!
How We Went to Mars
First published in Amateur Science Fiction Stories, March 1938 Not previously collected in book form
This story was first published in the third and final issue of Amateur Science Fiction Stories, edited by Douglas W. F. Mayer.
(N.B. All characters in this story are entirely fictitious and only exist in the Author's subconscious. Psychoanalysts please apply at the Tradesmens' Entrance.)
It is with considerable trepidation that I now take up my pen to describe the incredible adventures that befell the members of the Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society in the Winter of 1952. Although we would have preferred posterity to be our judge, the members of the society of which I am proud to be President, Secretary and Treasurer, feel that we cannot leave unanswered the accusations nay, calumnies made by envious rivals as to our integrity, sobriety and even sanity.
In this connection I would like to take the opportunity of dealing with the fantastic statements regarding our achievements made in the 'Daffy Drool' by Prof. Swivel and in the 'Weekly Washout' by Dr Sprocket, but unfortunately space does not permit. In any case, I sincerely hope that no intelligent reader was deceived by these persons' vapourings.
No doubt most of you will recollect the tremendous awakening of public interest in the science of rocketry caused by the celebrated case in 1941 of 'Rox v. British Rocket Society', and its still more celebrated sequel, 'British Rocket Society v. Rex.' The first case, which was started when a five ton rocket descended in the Houses of Parliament upon Admiral Sir Horatio ffroth-ffrenzy, M.P., K.C.B., H.P., D.T., after a most successful stratosphere flight, may be said to have resulted in a draw, thanks to the efforts of Sir Hatrick Pastings, K.C., whom the B.R.S. had managed to brief as a result of their success in selling lunar real estate at exorbitant prices. The appeal brought by the B.R.S. against the restrictions of the 1940 (Rocket Propulsion) Act was an undoubted victory for the society, as the explosion in court of a demonstration model removed all opposition and most of Temple Bar. Incidently, it has recently been discovered after extensive excavations hat there were no members of the B.R.S. in the court at the time of the disaster rather an odd coincidence. Moreover, both the survivors state that a few minutes before the explosion, Mr Hector Heptane, the President of the Society, passed very close to the rocket and then left the court hurriedly. Although an enquiry was started, it was then too late as Mr Heptane had already left for Russia, in order, as he put it, 'to continue work unhampered by the toils of capitalist enterprise, in a country where workers and scientists are properly rewarded by the gratitude of their comrades'. But I digress.
It was not until the repeal of the 1940 Act that progress could continue in England, when a fresh impetus was given to the movement by the discovery in Surrey of a large rocket labelled 'Property of the USSR. Please return to Omsk' obviously one of Mr Heptane's. A flight from Omsk to England (though quite understandable) was certainly a remarkable achievement, and not until many years later was it discovered that the rocket had been dropped from an aeroplane by the members of the Hickleborough Rocket Association, who even in those days were expert publicity hunters.
By 1945 there were a score of societies in the country, each spreading destruction over rapidly widening areas. My society, though only founded in 1949, already has to its credit one church, two Methodist chapels, five cinemas, seventeen trust houses, and innumerable private residences, some as far away as Weevil-in-the-Wurzle and Little Dithering. However, there can be no doubt in unprejudiced minds that the sudden collapse of the lunar crater Vitus was caused by one of our rockets, in spite of the claims of the French, German, American, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Swiss and Danish Societies (to mention only a few), all of whom, we are asked to believe, dispatched rockets moonwards a few days before the phenomenon was witnessed.
At first we contented ourselves with firing large models to considerable heights. These test rockets were fitted with recording baro-thermographs, etc. and our lawyers kept us fully informed as to their landing places. We were progressing very favourably with this important work when the unwarrantable defection of our insurance company forced us to start work on a large, man-carrying space-ship. We already had a sufficiently powerful fuel, details of which I cannot divulge here, save to say that it was a complex hydro-carbon into which our chemist, Dr Badstoff, had with great ingenuity introduced no less than sixteen quadruple carbon bonds. This new fuel was so violent that at first it caused a rapid change in our personnel, but by continued research it had been stabilised until the explosion took place when expected on 97 1/2 occasions out of 100 in which it showed its immense superiority over Dr Sprocket's triple heavy hyper-hyzone (20 occasions in 100) and Prof. Swivel's nitrogen heptafluoride (probability of non-explosion incommensurable).
The ship itself was thirty metres long and was made of moulded neo-bakelite with crystallux windows, and consisted of two steps, which were ample thanks to our new fuel. The whole thing would have cost a great deal of money had we intended to pay for it. The rocket motors were made of one of the new boro-silicon alloys and had an operating time of several minutes. Apart from these features, our ship did not differ materially from any other designed previously, except in so far that it had actually been constructed. We had no intention of venturing far out into space on our first flight, but circumstances of which I shall relate altered our plans in an unforeseen manner.
On the 1st of April, 1952, everything was ready for a preliminary flight. I broke the customary vacuum flask on the prow of the ship, christened it the 'Pride of the Galaxy', and we (this is, myself and the five surviving members of the council of twenty-five) entered the cabin and carefully sealed the door, squeezing the chewing gum into all the cracks.
The ship itself was resting on a balloon-type undercarriage and we had a straight run of two miles over various people's lawns and gardens. We intended to rise to a height of a few hundred miles and then to glide back to earth, landing as best we could with little regard to life or property save our own.
I seated myself at the controls and the others lay in the compensating hammocks which we hoped might save us from the shock of the take-off. In any case every space-ship has them and we could hardly do otherwise. With an expression of grim determination, which I had to assume several times before Ivan Schnitzel, our official photographer, was satisfied, I pressed the starting button and rather to our surprise the ship began to move.
After leaving our grounds it tore through a fence into a vegetable garden which it rapidly converted into a ploughed field, and then passed over a large lawn doing comparatively little damage apart from setting fire to a few greenhouses. By now we were nearing a row of buildings which might offer some resistance, and as we had not yet lifted, I turned the power full on. With a tremendous roar, the ship leapt into the air, and amid the groans of my companions I lost consciousness.
When I recovered, I realised that we were in space and jumped to my feet to see if we were falling back to earth. But I had forgotten my weightless condition and crashed head first against the ceiling, once more losing consciousness.
When I recovered, I very carefully made my way to the window and with relief saw that we were now floating back to earth. My relief was short-lived when I found that the earth was nowhere in sight! I at once realised that we must have been unconscious for a very long time my less robust companions still lay in a coma, or rather several comas, at the end of the cabin, the hammocks having given way under the strain, to the detriment of their occupants.
I first inspected the machinery, which so far as I could tell seemed intact, and then set about reviving my companions. This I readily did by pouring a little liquid air down their necks. When all were conscious (or as nearly so as could be expected in the circumstances), I rapidly outlined the situation and explained the need for complete calm. After the resulting hysteria had subsided, I asked for volunteers to go outside in a space suit and inspect the ship. I am sorry to say that I had to go myself.
Luckily, the exterior of the ship seemed quite intact, though there were bits of branches and a `Trespassers will be Prosecuted' notice stuck in the rudder. These I detached and threw away, but unluckily they got into an orbit round the ship and returned round the back, catching me a resounding whack on the head.
The impact knocked me off the ship, and to my horror I found myself floating in space. I did not, of course, lose my head but immediately looked around for some method by which I could return. In the pouch on the exterior of the space-suit I found a safety-pin, two tram tickets, a double-headed penny, a football-pool coupon covered with what seemed to be orbital calculations, and a complimentary ticket to the Russian ballet. After a careful scrutiny of these, I came to the reluctant conclusion that they offered little hope. Even if I could bring myself to throw away the penny, its momentum would, I rapidly calculated, be insufficient to return me to the ship. The tickets I did throw away, rather as a gesture than anything else, and I was about to throw the safety-pin after them it would have given me a velocity of .000001 millimetres an hour, which was better than nothing (by, in fact, .000001 mm/hour.) when a splendid idea occured to me. I carefully punctured my space-suit with the pin, and in a moment the escaping jet of air drove me back to the ship. I entered the air-lock just as the suit collapsed, not a moment too soon.
My companions crowded round me, eager for news, though there was little that I could tell them. It would take prolonged measurements to discover our position and I commenced this important work at once.
After ten minutes' observations of the stars, followed by five hours intensive calculations on our specially lubricated multiple slide-rules, I was able to announce, to the relief of all present, that we were 5,670,000 miles from the earth, 365,000 miles above the ecliptic, travelling towards Right Ascension 23 hours 15 mins. 37.07 secs., Declination 153° 17' 36". We had feared that we might have been moving towards, for example, R.A. 12 hours 19 mins. 7.3 secs, Dec. 169° 15' 17" or even, if the worst had happened, R.A. 5 hours 32 mins. 59.9 secs, Dec. 0° 0' 0".
At least, we were doing this when we took our observations, but as we had moved several million miles in the meantime, we had to start all over again to find where we were now. After several trials, we succeeded in finding where we were only two hours before we found it, but in spite of the greatest efforts we could not reduce the time taken in calculation to less than this value. So with this we had to be content.
The earth was between us and the sun, which was why we could not see it. Since we were travelling in the direction of Mars, I suggested that we could continue on our present course and try to make a landing on the planet. I had grave doubts, in fact, as to whether there was anything else we could do. So for two days we cruised on towards the red planet, my companions relieving the tedium with dominoes, poker and three-dimensional billiards (which, of course, can only be played in the absence of gravity). However, I had little time for these pursuits, as I had to keep constant check on the ship's position. In any case, I was completely fleeced on the first day, and was unable to obtain any credit from my grasping companions.
All the time Mars was slowly growing larger, and as we drew nearer and nearer many were the speculations we made as to what we should find when we landed on the mysterious red planet.
'One thing we can be certain of,' remarked Isaac Guzzbaum, our auditor, to me as we were looking through the ports at the world now only a few million miles away. 'We won't be met by a lot of old johnnies with flowing robes and boards who will address us in perfect English and give us the freedom of the city, as in so many science-fiction stories. I'll bet our next year's deficit on that!'
Finally we began our braking manoeuvres and curved down towards the planet in a type of logarithmic spiral whose first, second and third differential coefficients are in harmonic ratio a curve on which I hold all patents. We made a landing near the equator, as close to the Solis Lacus as possible. Our ship slid for several miles across the desert, leaving a trail of fused quartz behind it where the blast touched the ground, and ended up with its nose in a sand dune.
Our first move was to investigate the air. We decided unanimously (only Mr Guzzbaum dissenting), that Mr Guzzbaum should be detailed to enter the air-lock and sample the Martian atmosphere. Fortunately for him, it proved fit for human consumption, and we all joined Isaac in the air-lock. I then stepped solemnly out onto Martian soil the first human being in history to do so while Ivan Schnitzel recorded the scene for the benefit of history. As a matter of fact, we later found that he had forgotten to load the camera. Perhaps this was just as well, for my desire for strict accuracy compels me to admit that no sooner did I touch the ground then it gave way beneath my feet, precipitating me into a sandy pit from which I was with difficulty rescued by my companions.
However, in spite of this mishap, we eventually clambered up the dune and surveyed the countryside. It was most uninteresting, consisting solely of long ridges of heaped-up sand. We were debating what to do when suddenly we heard a high-pitched whining noise in the sky and to our surprise a cigar-shaped metal vessel dropped to the ground a few yards away. A door slid open.
'Fire when you see the whites of their eyes!' hissed Eric Wobblewit, our tame humourist, but I could tell that his joke was even more forced than usual. Indeed, we all felt nervous as we waited for the occupants of the ship to emerge.
They were three old men with long beards, clad in flowing white robes. Behind me I heard a dull thud as Isaac passed out. The leader spoke to me in what would have been flawless BBC English had it not been for the bits he had obviously picked up from Schoncctady.
'Welcome, visitors from Earth! I'm afraid this is not an authorised landing place, but we will let that pass for the moment. We have come to guide you to our city of Xzgtpkl.'
'Thanks,' I replied, somewhat taken aback, 'I'm sure we're very grateful to you for your trouble. Is it far to Zxgtpkl?'
The Martian winced. 'Xzgtpkl,' he said firmly.
'Well, Xzgtplk, then,' I went on desperately. The other two Martians looked pained and took a firmer grip on the rod-like instruments they were carrying. (These, we learned later, were walking-sticks.) The leader gave me up as a bad job.
'Skip it,' he said. 'It's about fifty miles away as the crow flies, though as there aren't any crows on Mars we have never been able to check this very accurately. Could you fly your ship behind us?'
'We could,' I replied, 'though we'd rather not, unless Zxg er, your city, is heavily insured with a reputable firm. Could you carry us? No doubt you have tractor beams and such-like.'
The Martian seemed surprised. 'Yes, we have,' he said, 'but how did you know it?'
'Just a surmise,' I replied modestly. 'Well, we'll get over to our ship and leave the rest to you.'
We did so, carrying the prostrate Guzzbaum With us, and in a few minutes were speeding over the desert after the Martian ship. Soon the spires of the mighty city reared above the horizon and in a short time we landed in a great square, surrounded by teeming crowds.
In a trice, or less, we were facing a battery of cameras and microphones, or their Martian equivalents. Our guide spoke a few words and then beckoned to me. With characteristic foresight I had prepared a speech before leaving earth, so I pulled it from my pocket and read it to, no doubt, the entire Martian nation. It was only when I had finished that I noticed I was reading the lecture: 'British Science-Fiction Authors: Their Prevention or Cure?' which I had given to the S.F.A. a few months before and which had already involved me in six libel actions. This was unfortunate, but from the reception, I am sure that the Martians found it of interest. The Martian cheer, oddly enough, closely resembles the terrestrial boo.
We were then taken (with difficulty) onto a moving road which led to a giant building in the centre of the city, where a lavish meal awaited us. What it consisted of we never succeeded in ascertaining, and we rather hope it was synthetic.
After the meal we were asked what part of the city we would like to visit, as it was entirely at our disposal. We did our best to explain what a variety show was, but the idea seemed beyond our guides and as we had feared they insisted on showing us over their power-plants and factories. Here I must say we found our knowledge of contemporary science-fiction invaluable, for everything with which the Martians tried to surprise us we had heard of long before. Their atomic generators, for instance, we compared unfavourably with those described by many terrestrial writers (though we took care to secure the plans) and we expressed surprise at their inability to overcome these laws of nature that have been repealed by our economists and politicians for years. In fact and I say it with pride the Martians got very little change out of us. When the tour finished I was lecturing the leader on the habits of termites and behind me I could hear Mr Guzzbaum (now, alas, his normal self) criticising the scandalously low rates of interest allowed in Martian trade.
After this we were not bothered any more and were able to spend most of our time indoors playing poker and some curious Martian games we had picked up, including an interesting mathematical one which I can best describe as 'four-dimensional chess'. Unfortunately, it was so complicated that none of my companions could understand it, and accordingly I had to play against myself. I am sorry to say that I invariably lost.
Of our adventures on Mars I could say a great deal and am going to at a later date. My forthcoming book, 'Mars with the Lid Off' should be out in the spring and will be published by Blotto and Windup at 21/-. All I will say at the moment is that we were very well entertained by our hosts, and I believe that we gave them a favourable impression of the human race. We made it quite clear, however, that we were somewhat exceptional specimens, as we did not want our hosts to be unduly disappointed by the expeditions after ours.
So well indeed were we treated that one of us decided not to return to earth when the time came, for reasons which I shall not go into here, as he has a wife and family on earth. I may have something more to say about this matter in my book.
We had, unfortunately, only a week in which to stay on Mars as the planets were rapidly moving apart. Our Martian friends had very kindly refuelled our ship for us, and also gave us many momentoes of our visit, some of them of considerable value. (Whether these souvenirs belong to the society as a whole or to the individual officers is a matter that has not yet been settled. I would, however, point out to those members who have been complaining that possession is nine points of the law, and where the possessors are my esteemed colleagues, it is more like ten.)
Our return to earth was uneventful and thanks to our great reserve of fuel we were able to make a landing where and how we liked. Consequently we chose a spot which would focus the eyes of the world upon us and bring home to everybody the magnitude of our accomplishment.
Of our landing in Hyde Park and the consequent evaportion of the Serpentine, enough has been written elsewhere, and the spectacle of three-inch headlines in the next day's `TIMES' was proof enough that we had made our mark in history. Everyone will remember my broadcast from the cells in Vine Street Police Station, where we were taken at the triumphant conclusion of our flight, and there is no need for me to add any more at the moment, since, moreover, it might embarrass my lawyers.
We are content to know that we have added something, however small,
to the total of human knowledge, and something, however large, to the
bank balance of our society. What more than this could we desire?
Excerpted from The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke by Arthur Charles Clarke Copyright © 2002 by Arthur Charles Clarke. Excerpted by permission.
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